On the bookshelf
The Rage for Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth
Pantheon: 521 pages, $ 30
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Kristin Henning believed that the aggressive presence of heavily armed police officers in American schools was a reaction to the epidemic of school shootings. The timing was right: there were 9,400 âschool resource officersâ nationwide in 1997, before Columbine; in 2016, they were at least 27,000.
But Henning, a lawyer in Washington, DC who has represented black youth for a quarter of a century, also knew that cops tended to target and physically abuse students of color; whatever profiling was going on had little to do with the demographics of school shooters. So she dug deeper and found a much older police presence accelerator: integration.
âWhen we think about reform, we have to understand the past,â Henning says. âWe have to think seriously about how we got here. “
Henning’s new book, “The rage of innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth, âmixes history, data, anecdotes and teen brain science to show that when it comes to school policing, we are exactly behind the scenes.
âThe average person isn’t even aware of the implicit ways in which black children are treated differently and criminalized,â she says. When a child is singled out in this way, it can often become fulfilling: âIt’s human nature to feel rejected and it sets off a vicious cycle where you distrust authority. The result, she says, is “empirically supported by the facts”: Excessive surveillance leads to an increase in crime.
Despite this, she maintains that most criminal charges against black youth are fabricated. âThe vast majority – 80% or more – of crimes committed by children are minor crimes,â she says. âWe could reduce law enforcement engagement with young people by 80% and everything would be fine, but people don’t believe it. “
Henning, who runs workshops for prosecutors, judges, advocates and others on racial justice and the legal system, spoke with The Times about the worst outrages and glimmers of hope.
Do you find it surprising that you still have to explain your humanity to your fellow Americans?
I am always shocked and outraged that people do not accept what is unequivocally true – that black children are children too. We know more than ever about the brain and psychology of adolescents, but we still aren’t changing. All over the world, teens are engaging in the same impulsive, peer-influenced, and sensation-seeking behaviors that your own children and you did when you were a child. Yet we still see racial disparities in the way we respond to the normal behavior of black children.
Was writing the book an overwhelming experience?
On my computer there are files that go back years, a collection of ridiculous cases, so it’s been in my heart and my guts for a long time. But then I forced myself to watch documentaries and interviews with mothers and fathers who have lost black children, Trayvon Martin’s family, Tamir Rice’s, Mike Brown’s. Reliving these stories was so painful that I had nightmares while writing; I was much more emotional than I ever thought I would.
Why is it important to understand how puberty started earlier for poor children, especially black and brown children?
It’s about getting people to see a young person under that face rather than the physical characteristics of breasts, height or weight. There is an intersection between racial prejudice and adultification – you almost now have an excuse not to see them as children. Tamir Rice was tall, but he was a child.
You’ve spent a lot of time on the less extreme cases – and the enduring trauma of being constantly searched or arrested.
The trauma part was essential to include; the research on the impact of trauma on people of color, but especially adolescents, was mind-boggling. I see it when I talk to young people, but when you combine the research with it, you see how much a bigger problem it is. There are police body camera footage where officers walk into a neighborhood and four or five black and brown children will simply lift their shirts to expose their belts. [to show they have no gun] without even being asked. It is a traumatic state and it is not known at all.
People are probably more aware of street harassment, but you spend a lot of time on the dangers of the prejudices implicit in schools.
School is supposed to be a safe place. Studies show that it is even more embarrassing to be stopped by the police in school than on the streets, and this reinforces mistrust of authority. The school system has become an extension of the criminal justice system. The directors become the overseers; teachers become gatekeepers.
The strongest resistance to change comes from the police unions. Does that frustrate you?
They are the ones who resist the reform. It is extremely important in the treatment of adolescents to reduce arrogance. I would like to ask the officers, “How are you in an ego battle with a 13 year old boy?” The children have not yet learned to express themselves and sometimes they do not even know how they are feeling. We have to get officers to remember how they were as a teenager and say, âYou are the adult and you have to act like one. “
But you point out that many officers do not consider them to be children.
Part of my goal is to change the narrative, to help people break through this blind spot of prejudice, but it’s going to take work. I wish we could change mindsets and attitudes, but sometimes you have to change techniques first. Create standards or minimum requirements – like no use of force against teenagers, no weapons for officers in schools or on playgrounds. With such ideas, you can gradually improve your relationships.
Are there any signs of progress?
In 2000, the Illinois Supreme Court case against Wardlow ruled that the police flight is correctly interpreted as consciousness of guilt. So if a teenager has ever been arrested or is just nervous and runs away, the police have the right to presume them guilty of a crime. But since 2015, a number of high state courts have slowly overturned that decision.
The problems cannot be solved entirely by law, but it is important. What appears to be tinkering around the edges opens the door for some incredibly important conversations about the meaning of race and trauma in the law. If we have a law that prohibits the police from asking a child to lift their shirt or consent to a search, it may be one child less in the system. The cumulative effects of these small pieces have major impacts.
Are you hopeful because of the changes you see or desperate because there is still so much to do?
I can’t afford to be too desperate or the work becomes overwhelming. We must work to save one child at a time, to change one state at a time, one law at a time. Keep an eye on the daily price and hope that in the end it will bring us closer to where we need to be. I don’t think in my lifetime I will see the kind of change we really need, but I do think I will see the moral arc lean towards justice.